The Art of Propaganda: The Cold War
The era of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union took propaganda and misinformation to new heights. On both sides of the invisible dividing line between East and West, the governments characterized the other side as evil personified.
In the West (the U.S. and our allies) the Soviet Union was always described as on huge Gulag where the workers in the Soviet state were held against their will in servitude for their entire lives. Their lives were described as hard, mean existences. Some of that was true because at its roots the Soviet Union was poor. Their massive bureaucracy and their military was consuming vast amounts of their resources.
Our military and political leaders always described their military as the “vast Red Army” or the uncountable hordes of Reds. Check out this 1958 newspaper and its dire warning. Their nuclear arsenal was said to be able to kill us 100’s of times over. Little did we know that ours could accomplish the same thing.
In the Soviet Union the West was described as nations of money-grubbing capitalists. The Iron Curtain was meant to keep out the infection of capitalism from the Worker’s Paradises. The reality was that it was meant to do the opposite. Quite often the Soviet authorities created “Potemkin villages” for foreign visitors. Years ago, I read a book that was written by a Russian emigre who had served in the Red Army. He recounted an inspection tour by a general from Moscow. The local commander had the tanks and other vehicles painted to spruce them up. Many could not operate but they looked good. He even had his troops spray paint the grass and the leaves green!
In the same book the author characterized the Soviet Union as an economic midget with a strong right arm, the Red Army. At the same time the NATO generals were testifying to Congress that NATO forces were vastly outnumbered by the Warsaw Pact. Only later, did we find out that many of the so-called vast Red hordes were untrained troops who served in construction battalions. It took 100,000 air force personnel to do what our air force did with 10,000. We also found out later that the Soviets believed that we never decommissioned tanks because they didn’t.
I almost wonder if the military of the West started to believe its own propaganda. We fully expected Soviet armor formations to smash across Central Germany and through the Fulda Gap. Novels were written about the possibilities of World War III. Scenarios were practiced in the war colleges of both sides. Troops were trained to respond. All the while both sides spent billions for counter weapons for the decisive battle for world dominance.
It never came. Instead we had a series of proxy wars where each side supported a local government or movement. We had the Greek Civil War from 1946 until 1949. We had the War of the Running Dogs in Malaysia that lasted from 1948 until 1960. The Korean War was a major hot war that started in 1953 and lasted until an armistice was signed in mid-1953. In Vietnam the United States actually sided with the South Vietnamese. It cost the U.S. over 50,000 dead. The Soviets returned the favor in Afghanistan and suffered a similar humiliation. The list goes on: Lebanon, the various Arab-Israeli conflicts, various African wars and so on.
The proxy wars tended to bleed off the tension like a steam valve. Well, that and the doctrine of MAD, Mutual Assured Destruction. The entire panoply of nuclear war was played out in the minds of citizens on both sides of the great divide. We know about MIRVs, throw weights, megatons and much more.
Both governments advertised their nuclear superiority on a daily basis as if a nuclear war was winnable. There actually were noted scientists on both sides who believed that a nuclear war was winnable. Then, there were those who theorized that a nuclear exchange would set the atmosphere on fire, knock the world of its axis or poison all of the air, water and soil.
The beginning of the end of the Cold War started with the election of Ronald Wilson Reagan as the 40th President of the United States and Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Led by these two stalwart anti-communists the West spent its way to victory. Who will ever forget Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire”? Please take the time to view the video because it is as impactful today as it was then. Reagan’s clarion call for Mikhail Gorbachev to free his people stands forth as one of the greatest calls for liberty ever spoken.
In the end the West won the propaganda of the Cold War. Quite simply our system was better than their system. In the end words won the war not bullets.
I am a conservative commentator who lives in Central Virginia near Charlottesville, the home of Thomas Jefferson.